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Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Reflections on the UK's atheist bus campaign

People have had some time to get used to the idea of these buses. The upset, apart from a few dotty complaints, has been very mild. The very gentleness of the message is a point strongly in its favour.

With a campaign like this, it is important to establish in the public's mind that religion and belief are not sacrosanct and that they are fair game. Additionally, having achieved this, the advertisements, light-heartedly and non-dogmatically, make the point that it's quite acceptable to be a free-thinking non-believer.

Too often, religion gets a free ride; it seldom has to be justified. It is simply accepted. The atheist advertisement undermines this mindset both subtly and appropriately; the deliberate use of 'probably' in its explanation and an implicit exhortation to feel neither guilt nor fear contrasts strongly with most religious messages.

Since the Enlightenment, the 'God-given' nature of 'God' and religion has been increasingly questioned; this campaign continues the process. The tube campaign cards, which will appear shortly, also make the point carefully, without being confrontational. No-one could possibly take exception to Douglas Adams's lovely question 'Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?'

Atheists spend too much time rehearsing and repeating the arguments among themselves; seldom do they do something important and strategic. Carefully argued books like Dawkins's The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell challenge the cosy position occupied by faith and religion. Faced with the arguments, many of the religiosi have shifted to ground where they no longer claim the literal truth of their religious books. Instead, they now talk about the metaphorical point of many of the stories. The bus – and other transport - campaign is an important step further forward; it keeps up the pressure on those who would promulgate faith, requiring them to justify themselves more than they've hitherto been expected to do. Watch out for further retreat into the world of metaphor and simile.

A prominent complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority comes from Stephen Green, the national director of Christian Voice. It includes the claim that the advertisements break the ASA’s codes on substantiation and truthfulness.
It is given as a statement of fact and that means it must be capable of substantiation if it is not to break the rules. There is plenty of evidence for God, from people’s personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.
This complaint can only help: either the ASA will rule the objection too trivial to consider – (Ariane Sherine has already checked out the 'probably' with the ASA and, in any case, one would have thought that if 'God' were half the person his acolytes claim, s/he/it could surely take care of him/it/herself) - or Green will be asked to substantiate his assertions. Whichever way things go – and the case being ruled 'beyond an earthly court's jurisdiction' being far more likely – the atheist campaign will benefit from yet more favourable publicity.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009
God's wrath against sin

In June 2008, a blog article in The Guardian – arguably the best newspaper website in the blogWorld [I think he means blogcolon(y); see Wikipedia - Ed] - described a UK Christian advertising campaign, including a website reference, to bring religion, unbidden, to non-consenting citizens. The warning article, by Ariane Sherine, included the arresting comment
It seems you wait ages for a bus with an unsettling Bible quote, then two come along at once.
The slender rocket then carried on to describe one of the features of the associated Christian site, principally God's reaction to sin:
You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell. Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire which was prepared for the devil and all his angels (demonic spirits) (Matthew 25: 41).
Her article then went on to propose an ingenious riposte. She argued that it would be possible to have free-thinking advertisements on buses, too. She reasoned
…you can buy a "bendy bus streetliner" for only £23,400 for two weeks. Which means that if there are 4,680 atheists reading this and we all contribute £5, it's possible that we can fund a much-needed atheist London bus ad with the slogan: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and get on with your life."
Her campaign was an outstanding success and the necessary £23,400 was raised very quickly. The money hasn't stopped - if anything the flow has quickened - and currently the total is over £140,000. The buses are to be seen, not only in London, but all around the country. Other countries have followed suit. You can read more here. On the positive side, as Ariane puts it: 'You wait ages for an atheist bus, then 800 come along [all] at once.'

Australia, that bastion of freethinking has, however, banned their light-hearted version. What a shame! I think it worth pointing out that the City of Sydney subsidised a visit by the Pope last July, to the tune of at least $Aus40 million. As an Australian taxpayer, I object; by contrast, the banned Aussie 'Sleep in on Sunday' ads were financed by individual subscription. Grrr!

The UK campaign, having raised so much money, will also be extended in London:
From Monday January 12, 1,000 tube cards will run on London Underground featuring atheist quotations from Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson and Katharine Hepburn... alongside the original campaign slogan.
These quotes will be amusing, as well as thought-provoking. For example, the Emily Dickinson quote observes that because 'it will never come again is what makes life so sweet'.
An animated version of the slogan will also appear on two large LCD screens on Oxford Street (opposite Bond Street tube station), so that you can see the advert live without having to wait for an atheist bus. And, to thank all donors and show the strength of atheism in the UK, every ABC advertisement will contain the line "This advert was funded by public donations".
Ariane's soaring campaign may not change minds, but it may have several important effects. While, to many - atheists included - Richard Dawkins is a pain, he has made atheism more acceptable: someone had to start 'The Emperor has no clothes' ball rolling. The 'Get on with your life' message is likely to make free-thinkers of all persuasions less reluctant to talk about their irreligion: the religiosi ought to be made to feel ashamed of their beliefs; it is not for the rationalists among us to be disconcerted. My personal slogan: Religion: an activity for consenting adults in private sums the matter up and could, perhaps, be considered for inclusion on a bus poster...

This is unlikely to be the end of the dispute. On the one hand, the money is still pouring in; on the other, there have been complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. Stephen Green's complaint (he's the national director of Christian Voice) includes the claim that
the advertisements broke the ASA’s codes on substantiation and truthfulness. “It is given as a statement of fact and that means it must be capable of substantiation if it is not to break the rules. There is plenty of evidence for God, from people’s personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.”
Ho hum! The polite response is to describe this statement as utter balderdash, but other, less polite, expressions also come to mind. Does Stephen Green perhaps lack a few glarneys among his marbles?

The best result might be to insist that religious ads include 'possibly' in their message, to match the 'probably' in atheist ads. A close second would, of course, be a ban on atheist advertisements and on those of a religious nature. This ban would include all signs, having the slightest religious content, outside religious establishments.

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